It’s no secret that almost all AAA shooter titles are opting for the fast-paced, enhanced-mobility gameplay style in recent years, despite many of them having been birthed at a time when sprinting was a pipe dream.
Halo has been on a steady journey to quick, snappy gameplay, adding sprint partially in Reach, then completely in 4 and last year introducing a whole host of mobility enhancers in Halo 5. Call of Duty has also gone down this route, adjusting gameplay to suit the new futuristic settings of 2012’s Black Ops II and beyond by adding thrust boosters, wall-running and more, bit-by-bit. Other big shooters like Destiny and Titanfall, despite being new titles, have also followed (or perhaps contributed to the start of) the trend, with Destiny‘s multi-jumps and Guardian powers, and Titanfall‘s focus on parkour and environment traversal.
Now, the benefits and drawbacks of this new gameplay trend are entirely down to opinion, and that opinion is varied dramatically among gamers. For today’s article, however, the specifics of those opinions are more or less irrelevant. The real question today is whether gameplay can or will ever successfully slow down again – or more broadly, what are FPS games going to look like after 2016?
Despite what I just wrote, we have to acknowledge the fact that opinions will always be divided and you can’t satisfy everyone. There are those who enjoy the new mobility-driven FPS style, and those who miss the days of slower, more tactic-driven arena shooters, or just want to see titles like CoD return to the days of World at War & Modern Warfare – simple guns, standard soldiers, classic warfare. The main issues we have to contend with in this sea of passionate, opinionated fans, are simple yet broad – when do you change gameplay speed, what happens when you do, and can the new design be as successful as the last?
Why did gameplay speed up in the first place? Most likely the chief reasons were that the community spoke up, and then either the setting changed to suit new gameplay, or the gameplay changed to suit a new setting. Can you imagine warfare in a technologically-advanced 23rd century where soldiers are incapable of anything more than a gentle jog? No, nor can I. Now, granted, it’s not impossible to pull off a slower futuristic shooter – after all, Halo did it for at least three games. The difficulty here is simply that it’s all been done before.
Call of Duty is a very good example of the design choices made by the industry and can shed some light on the reasoning. Modern Warfare 3, the 8th game in the series was the most futuristic game yet, set between 2016-2017, yet was still firmly encased in the technology of our current time, staying true to its name of “Modern Warfare”. That’s eight whole games set in either 20th Century conflicts or modern day. As one would expect, by this point it was commonplace for people to talk of CoD as a cash cow being milked of the same old time/location settings and gameplay formulae for a new game each year – at this point it’s clear the obvious move is to make a change, inject something fresh into the mix.
Enter Black Ops II, the ninth game in the series, set in 2025. This was the series’ first step into proper futuristic concepts, though only set in a semi-futuristic time period, it prominently featured technology and weaponry that is only starting to emerge on the scene now. From there things took off, with CoD being described by many as feeling fresh and different (despite the ubiquitous faction of players who bashed the new game for its departure from the previous formula, having spent the last five years complaining the formula was stale). Ghosts, AW and BO3 came along in the following years, each set further and further into the future, with BO3 beginning in 2065. Each of these came with new technological advancements, fuelled by a need to keep innovating the gameplay of the series, but also a need to keep up with other competitors doing exactly the same thing.
Which brings us to today, where we sit a mere couple of months away from E3 2016, the most recent wave of FPS blockbusters have launched, and the next wave of games are as yet unannounced. We’ve hit a point in FPS gameplay pacing that a growing number of players are now claiming that games are too fast. There’s an increasing concern that if these games get any faster, they may become classed in an entirely new genre, and by extension an entirely different game to the ones their core fanbase signed on for – some fans having done so upwards of a decade ago.
So, where do we go from here? The trouble is, the FPS genre is at a place it’s never been, it’s just arriving at the pinnacle of a steady journey towards mobility and speed play – in short, there’s no previous inflection point to extrapolate any safe choices from. That leaves the likely choices down to the one thing that has been driving game development since its inception – business and (yes, I’m saying it) money.
Now, before you get your flame guns out, let me clarify. I’m not saying that game development is solely focused on business and revenue, but I am saying that it is the core motivation for most studios, it simply has to be. Video games are a consumer product and for there to be consumers, there has to be a business making money from the product. This business doesn’t run to its greatest potential unless its aim is to make as much money as possible from its products – that’s not to say it can’t have the consumers’ interests and support at heart, and that’s where the balance between financial success and good customer care comes into play.
In short, what I’m saying is that a large franchise only remains so if sales figures remain somewhat level or increase, and to do that they need their business hats on. As much as I’d love to use the token “listen to the fans” line, I’m not going to, because fans don’t always know what they want, and the fanbase’s opinions are never unanimous, which makes development decisions all the more difficult. Especially so when one half is saying “never change the formula” and the other saying “your formula is stale and recycled”, with a likely prospect that the fulfillment of either opinion will result in many fans from both camps changing their views.
What does one do in this predicament? Keep that business hat on, and make it a stylish one. Listen to the fans, yes, but there has to be a compromise between what will sell games, what will keep your series competitive with other titles, and what will promote series longevity. This is exactly what’s driven the so-called “race” to have faster gameplay than all the other FPS’s in the last few years – except this can’t happen much longer.
Developers will simply have to take a risk and choose one of three or so routes. Perhaps they choose to stick to their guns and evolve the game into something new entirely, it can be successful if done right. After all, whilst Halo hasn’t fully done this, it’s one of the closest examples we have, with Halo 5 being dramatically different to Halo: CE in terms of gameplay speed and still being wildly popular. Or, maybe they choose to keep the current pacing with aims of capitalising on the current trend, or perhaps maintaining a point-of-difference from competitors who may choose to do something different.
Finally, some series’ may choose what I think is the most likely approach, especially I think in the case of Call of Duty. The series is on a yearly release schedule with developers Sledgehammer Games, Treyarch and Infinity Ward taking in turns in that order to release their titles. The next developer to release a title should be Infinity Ward this year, and given the way their last game Ghosts ended, it’s highly likely that 2016’s Call of Duty title will be another in the Ghosts subseries.
That doesn’t necessarily mean things will slow down, as it could be set several years ahead of Ghosts, like Black Ops II was to its predecessor, but there’s a good chance that it’ll be set around the same time period and so player mobility may be very similar to Ghosts – much more like CoD games used to be before double-jumps and thrusters made their way onto the scene. Should all else fail, my personal theory is that the series will have no choice but to slow down the pace in 2017, if my suspicions about the setting of Sledgehammer’s next game are correct.
Sledgehammer’s first CoD title of course was Advanced Warfare, a game so dramatically different to any other in the series so far due to the massive jump forward in setting, mobility and speed. Now, given the current state of gameplay speed that I’ve been whittering on about for so long that I’m impressed you’re still here, I fully assume that their next game will again be a massive change in the series’s setting. We’ve had a progression of titles moving though historic settings, then blending into modern, which then blended into futuristic, leaving the least-recently-visited setting as an historic one – exactly what I think Sledgehammer will go for in 2017.
Not only would it be a very refreshing change for the series and something fans have called for repeatedly, but it’s almost the perfect excuse to cut out the mobility-enhancements without saying “we had no other sensible choice, so we cut out mobility just for the sake of doing so” and just rehashing the Modern Warfare style titles which have over-saturated the industry for some time now.
But, Ty, why go back in time? We’ve had millions of games set in past wars… Yes, yes we have. The beauty (or rather, horror) of it is that there are so many past conflicts yet to be explored through video games. Black Ops‘s setting in the Cold/Vietnam War was a fantastic design decision and made the game genuinely fascinating to play, with the setting rarely, if ever, visited in video games. Even if you do stick to WWI/WWII settings, there are still an enormous amount of events within each conflict that haven’t been so much as referenced in games over the years, so it’s safe to say there’s plenty to work with.
As for other FPS titles, both new IP and established series’, it’s extremely hard to predict what will happen, as so much of the decision process over the next few years will be based off the trends set by the rest of the genre’s titles. All that we know is that we are at a very new set of crossroads where anything can happen. Even if series’ do opt to slow things back down, it’s going to get harder and harder to innovate and change up gameplay now that we’ve hit (or nearly hit) an upper boundary of one of the biggest gameplay variation factors in the last decade or so.
Perhaps this will spawn many years’ worth of recycled concepts and changes, or hopefully it will inspire developers to find new ways of changing up their creations. Perhaps it’s up to us to speak up at this very formative time in gaming, make our thoughts known, and help our developers shape an exciting, innovative and fascinating future for the FPS genre.
What do you want the FPS genre to look like in say, ten years’ time?
Let us know in the comments or on our subreddit!